Across the United States, Republican state party officials are taking unprecedented steps to discourage or even purge critics of Donald Trump and promote potential allies of the former president.
These efforts are the latest sign of Trump’s ongoing stranglehold over areas of the Republican party that are usually neutral and reflect his intense popularity with a wide slice of the Republican base, despite his scandal-strewn four years in power and his loss to Joe Biden in 2020.
Traditionally state Republican parties have taken pains to avoid favoritism within primaries and intra-party battles. The mission of those groups and their members is generally to help get Republicans elected, regardless of which party sect they align with.
In Oklahoma, the state Republican party chairman endorsed a challenger to Senator James Lankford, an incumbent Republican, over Lankford’s last-minute decision to not object to the 2020 presidential election results on 6 January.
In Wyoming, a Republican party official sent out a plea to members of Congress to vet primary challengers to Congresswoman Liz Cheney, one of Trump’s favorite obsessions since leaving office.
In Alaska, the state Republican party is backing Kelly Tshibaka, the former commissioner of administration, to take Lisa Murkowski’s Senate seat about a month after Trump himself endorsed Tshibaka. Some of Tshibaka’s consultants are high-ranking veterans of Trump’s unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign.
These latest moves are a continuation of a trend of activism among state GOP officials to side with Trump and spurn elected officials and prominent Republicans – some of whom are otherwise popular – who have antagonized Trump. Republican parties in Arizona, Illinois, Maine and Ohio have also censured party members who split with Trump on certifying the election results.
But rank-and-file Republican officials actively working to tip the scales to placate the whims of a one-term president are breaking new ground.
“We’re in a period now with a former president who has grievances of his own party and he’s using his clout and his megaphone and his power to attempt to exact revenge on those individuals. And in certain states where Trump is popular or where an incumbent political figure has taken a deeply unpopular political position, you are seeing some internal opposition,” said Matt Mackowiak, the chairman of the Travis county GOP, in Texas.
He added: “I think we’re living in a time now where party officials don’t feel as duty-bound to support every member of the party, particularly if they’ve gone in a different direction on a fairly important issue.”
Suspicions of candidate loyalty within party infrastructure are not unheard of or unique to the Republican party. During the last open race for Democratic National Committee chair in 2017, Democratic activists sometimes theorized that Barack Obama or other establishment state party chairs were subtly trying to support certain candidates and discourage others. But those suspicions only extended so far.
“There’s little historical precedent for party chairs intervening in primaries,” said Matt Moore, a former South Carolina Republican party chairman. “Usually there’s great deference given not only to elected officials but also to the state committees that elect chairs.”
The impact of the help these state Republican party members provided is unclear.
Alaska’s Senator Murkowski, for instance, has survived serious challenges from conservatives in the past and this financial quarter she out-raised Tshibaka – a sign that the Trump-endorsed primary challenger’s chances of winning are not assured. In Wyoming, Cheney is facing a handful of challengers who could split the anti-Cheney vote.
Moore argued that the involvement of officials in Trump’s efforts to undermine his opponents could actually undermine the state parties.
“I would argue it actually weakens the party in the long term. It reduces the credibility of chairs, especially when they endorse crackpot candidates against serious US senators,” Moore said. “The big success of the party in the past decade is improved infrastructure, so when sitting US senators don’t play ball with the party it reduces the quality of the infrastructure – like field programs, data, etc.”
Even more unusual, these internal Republican party conflicts have little to do with a broad swath of policy disagreements.Instead they are often about whether a candidate supported Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent.
“What’s happened is historically odd,” Moore said. “We’ve seen senators over the years attacked by party chairs or the party in general, but never over one vote. It’s very strange.”
It’s now clear that incumbent Republicans who have crossed Trump have done so at their peril. In Georgia for example, the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, the top elections official in the state and a Republican, faces a primary challenge from congressman Jody Hice after refusing to help Trump undermine the 2020 election results.
Across the country Republicans realize that their biggest electoral dangers come not necessarily from a strong Democratic opponent, but from their standing with Trump, even though he is out of office.
“Here it’s a 100% purity test,” said state representative Landon Brown of Wyoming.
The Wyoming state party has passed bylaws that bar the state party from giving a lawmaker money unless that lawmaker votes in line with the Wyoming Republican party’s platform 80% of the time, Brown said. The Wyoming party gives lawmakers scorecards and lets them know if they are failing. Brown summed up the party’s ideology: “If you are not aligned with Trump, you are not a Republican.”